Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Praise of the Gi

I believe that all group activities acquire cultures.  

Those cultures are seldom inherent to actual practice, but still typically get conflated with the activity itself. Sometimes those cultures come from the dominant demographic practicing the activity (Brazilian-born acai-love among practitioners of BJJ around the world)…sometimes they’re passed down in history (like bowing from Japan)…but others, like the gi in BJJ, are an inherent part of the practice.

A friend shared this piece this morning—it’s about a woman who, after losing 164lbs, and becoming a personal trainer and a Spartan, a Rugged Maniac, a Warrior and a Triathlete, still sometimes finds her body ugly. The fitness Internet is full of posts by people who’ve learned to accept the stretchmarks and loose skin that being overweight has left them with. This post though, takes a slightly different twist, with detailed photos of her “ugly” body parts juxtaposed against what they can actually do. It’s a stark and rare comparison of aesthetic and function.

I read it, enjoyed it, and couldn’t help but think “This doesn’t happen in BJJ”.

My cousin, who is an amazing, budding triathlete (and blogger), has had a front row seat to all of my training stories (even the ones I wouldn’t publish here). I mentioned, the other day, a comment I’d heard from a lady in jiu jitsu online, who’d said something that basically amounted to being thankful for gis because they cover over so many bodily imperfections.

“I wish they had gis for tri.”

She was joking, but the very concept says a lot. Check out any women’s fitness clothing line or magazine and, winter sports aside, you’ll only be a few inches of skin away from a lingerie catalog. We’re not even talking sports where minimal clothing is arguably necessary (like swimming or gymnastics), but sports like running or activities like crossfit, where clothing trends move toward the display of more skin (partly to advertise results) and where mainstream images use aesthetic no more gracefully than an Axe body spray campaign. Even with innocuous arms and legs on display, women…people…are still frequently left looking at training video and post race photos, lamenting jiggles and dimples.

Strong is not the new sexy. Sexy is, and always will be, the new sexy.

But the gi…it does hide a multitude of sins against sexiness. I’ve heard women across BJJ breathe occasional, small sighs of relief at the coverage a gi can offer. I've heard a few similar whispers from men. They, with their thick cloth, bulky cuts and long pants and sleeves, are almost revolutionary in their egalitarian nature—multiple times I’ve looked at two people rolling and have not been sure of genders. You’ll be hard pressed to find that anywhere else, in or out of the worlds of fitness.

That’s where the hijab* (or even the burqa or niqab) comes in. While generally lambasted as oppressive, many Muslim women tout the clothing as liberating them from the constant evaluation of worth by their physical appearance. Liberation is not, in fact, only about saying yes or revealing more. Sometimes it’s about the right to say no…the right to remove oneself or keep oneself or conform oneself.

I can't help but wonder if Andrea, had she found bodily change through jiu jitsu, would have even felt the need to highlight the abilities of her changed body--if instead of images of other women in boy shorts, with stomachs exposed and toned thighs on display, she'd met her fitness revolution amidst pictures of tousled hair, gnarled hands and disheveled jackets. 

This is why I think the gi, in all its tradition and visual awkwardness, in a world of pop-fitness appearance worship, is, in its use, actually revolutionary.

*Of course, the hijab analogy breaks down at the question around the forced use of the clothing by only one gender.

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